Waterfront Encounters

Today, the Burlington waterfront is a place designed primarily for recreation and tourism: picnics, sunset walks, pleasure cruises, and bike rides. But this reality is just the latest chapter in a long history that has seen a remarkable amount of change. BCL students took a journey into this history – and reflected on the present reality – through a variety of experiences last week. They also had the chance to reflect on their own relationship to the lake and what the future might bring.

Some students went sailing with our friends at the Community Sailing Center, riding a steady south wind past Juniper Island and close by the rock formation known to the Abenaki people as Odzihozo, a reminder of their continuous presence here for thousands of years.

Setting out into a south wind.
Odzihozo, from Abenaki legend, created the nearby mountains and the lake and later transformed himself into this rock formation.

Felipe, Cooper and Conner enjoy the wind and waves.

Other students took to the water in kayaks, skirting the shallow waters that once were Burlington’s commercial piers and docks, buzzing with activity, loading and unloading goods for market.  

Emmett and Leo paddle a tandem kayak.

A third group donned wetsuits and snorkeled a section of the lake near the Barge Canal, where three old shipwrecks still lie on the bottom, hidden reminders of the lumber boom in the 19th century. (Big thanks to our friends at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for their leadership on this expedition – and the Waterfront Diving Center for loaning us wetsuits!)

Ali gets ready to take the plunge.

Scanning the bottom for shipwrecks.


It always feels good to take off the fins.


The snorkel crew.

On foot and by bike, we learned about other chapters in the history of the waterfront: the transformation brought by the railroad, the dominance of fossil fuel energy infrastructure in the 20th century; and the plan to pave a good stretch of the waterfront for the Southern Connector highway in the 1960s. We talked about how the application of the Public Trust doctrine in the 1980s was definitive in turning the waterfront into the recreational space it is today, with public access and public benefit as primary goals.

Ahmad checks out a picture of the Moran Plant in its heyday of coal-powered electric generation on the waterfront.
Dov talks about the long sweep of waterfront history.

We also were grateful to have our friends at the Watershed Alliance join us for a day, where we did hands-on explorations of several topics related to lake health, including water quality, invasive species, and cyanobacteria. Some students even got to pilot an underwater remote operated vehicle.

Testing water quality with a digital probe.

Some students participated in a ‘consultancy’ protocol with Owen Milne, the Director of the Community Sailing Center, offering their insight into the dilemma of how to get more Burlington youth engaged in the Center’s programming. 

Examining mysids, small crustaceans that are an important part of the lake’s food web. 

How does all of this fit into the BCL curriculum? Our overarching BCL guiding question is, “What does it take for a community to thrive?” These lake encounters opened new angles on this question: Is the lake ecosystem thriving? How do we make access to the waterfront more equitable? How do we encourage people – especially young people – to enjoy the lake and care enough to protect it for the future? How can we reclaim places on the lakeshore that have been contaminated? How do we move toward ‘front-end’ solutions to protect the lake, instead of spending our time and money cleaning up our mistakes? 

All of these questions, and many more, are now filling the pages of BCL students’ journals and beginning to be transformed in their written Expos. Some may find their way into students’ Inquiry project topics. Some will even cross over to dinner table conversations at home. Some may inspire advocacy efforts, summer jobs and career paths.

Do we have any hope of answering these questions? Our goal is to make a start, because these questions – and their answers – matter deeply to all of us. And we’ve stirred up some genuine curiosity and compassion through our lake explorations, which now demand our attention. There are no easy answers, but we have a few tools: an inquiry mindset; a ‘systems thinking’ framework; access to a growing circle of people in the city who can help us; and lots to read that can inform us along the way. 

STUDENT VOICES: These are drawn from our daily Exit Cards, journals and students’ written Expos.

“Underwater, it was a different world. In this world I easily lost track of where I was. This world was darker than above water, with light streaming in from the top. This world had tall, green plants that swayed in the water. It had little and big fish, and it had shipwrecks. These shipwrecks had many zebra mussels attached to the structure.” ~ Aya

“The first people to come to this land were the Native Americans. They settled here because of the lake. They used its resources, and from what we learned from one of our guest speakers, their society prospered. Then in the 1800s… industries pushed the Native Americans away from their homes to build their businesses. This has carried into the present day, and now acts as a system. For example, it is now wealthy homeowners who want to be near the lake. Lake property is taxed more heavily than other locations, and only the wealthy can afford to live there, so again the people who are already on the outskirts of Burlington are pushed even further back.” ~ Auggie

Snorkeling was really fun, and I loved seeing the sunken barges and ships. I’m still very curious about the barge canal and history around the waterfront… The activity where we tried to figure out if species were invasive or native was very engaging and fun. – Maria

I really enjoyed getting to spend time on the waterfront both on the lake and just getting to be near the lake learning about its history. One thing I enjoyed was learning about the stages of the evolution of our waterfront. – Nils

The consultancy with the sailing center made my opinions feel very heard and appreciated and felt like we were making a real impact. – Henry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s